Victoria and Elizabeth: A tale of 2 Diamond Jubilees

Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee celebrations are in marked contrast to those of Queen Victoria, the last monarch to have been on the throne for six decades.
Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee celebrations include members of her family visiting throughout the Commonwealth, while the commemoration of Queen Victoria's 60 years on the throne in 1897 was concentrated in London. (Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth joins her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, as the only other British monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee.

Victoria celebrated her 60 years on the throne in 1897, while the current queen marks her jubilee throughout 2012.

The British Commonwealth and Britain itself have changed a great deal since Queen Victoria reigned.

Here's a look at the two reigns, and the celebrations held more than a century apart to mark a monarch's six decades on the throne.

Queen Victoria

The reign of Queen Victoria, shown in her Diamond Jubilee year of 1897, corresponded to a period of great change in Britain and its empire. (Associated Press)

Queen Victoria ascended to the throne shortly after her 18th birthday, after her uncle died in June 1837. King William IV had no children, and Victoria was first in line for the throne.

In the early years of her reign, Victoria was highly influenced by two important men in her life: her husband Prince Albert, whom she married in 1840, and her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne. 

Queen Victoria's reign corresponded to a period of great change in Britain and its empire. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, there was great economic progress and Britain's empire was the largest and strongest in the world.

Estelle Bouthillier, an information and documentation analyst at Concordia University in Montreal who has studied the history of the Royal Family, says Britain at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign was untouchable.

"England was an isolationist; they had no treaties with any other country and they felt secure in their position," she says.

Victoria's Diamond Jubilee was also a rare opportunity for the British public to get a glimpse of their queen because she had been in relative seclusion since the death of her beloved husband in 1861.

Heads of the Commonwealth countries came to London to mark Victoria's 60 years on the throne. The celebration began on June 20, with the official commemoration coming two days later. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the prime minister of Canada at the time, went to London and was knighted.

"Victoria became this very symbolic figure of England’s prosperity and the broader British Empire," says Carolyn Harris, a royal expert at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Tens of thousands of well-wishers filled London streets that were decked out in decorations that cost 300,000 pounds.

The 1897 celebrations of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee included a huge procession to St. Paul's Cathedral in London. (National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

The 1897 celebrations included a huge procession to St. Paul's Cathedral. Victoria wore a long black silk dress and, rather than a crown, had a bonnet decorated with white ostrich feathers and diamonds. A thanksgiving service was held outside St. Paul's on the plaza so the increasingly frail Victoria would not have to climb the church steps.

Victoria was moved by the experience, the Daily Telegraph has reported, noting that the Queen wrote in her journal that night: "No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those six miles of streets... The crowds were quite indescribable and their enthusiasm truly marvellous and deeply touching."

In Victoria's frailty lies one of the major differences between the diamond jubilees of Victoria and Elizabeth.

"The current Queen is extremely healthy and active for someone who is [86] years old and considering how long the Queen Mother lived, she may reign for another 10 or 15 years," says Harris, "but with Victoria there [was] very much a sense that her Diamond Jubilee was her final major appearance." Victoria died in 1901.

A royal naval review featuring 165 ships and more than 40,000 participants was a finale to the 1897 jubilee celebration.

"Queen Victoria was overwhelmed by the success of the Diamond Jubilee,"says Bouthillier. "She recognized that the republicanism that was rampant before 1897 was finished forever."

Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth became queen in 1952, after the death of her father, King George VI.

However, unlike the ailing Victoria who had her celebration close to home, Queen Elizabeth is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee with extensive travelling in the U.K., royal tours by her family members and numerous events.

The current Queen is not only in better physical condition than Queen Victoria was, but also remains deeply devoted to her duty and the Commonwealth.

Queen Elizabeth watches as servicemen and women parade in front of her as part of the Royal Muster held at Windsor Castle on May 19, 2012, to help mark her Diamond Jubilee. (Paul Vicente/Associated Press)

"The current Queen takes her role as head of the Commonwealth very seriously," says Harris.

"She is very interested in maintaining good international relationships and the current jubilee celebrations reflect that."

All members of the Royal Family will be making visits to Commonwealth countries as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

"It’s interesting that in 2012, the various members of the Royal Family are travelling to all the Commonwealth states to celebrate the jubilee, whereas for Victoria, the dominion heads of state all travelled to London for the celebrations," says Harris.

"This both reflects how difficult travel would have been for all the members of the Royal Family but it also really demonstrates the attitude of the time towards the hierarchy in the British empire."

Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth has remained very active. She has opened the British Parliament 58 out of her 60 years, only missing two years because she was expecting Prince Andrew and then Prince Edward.

The current Queen has also had to be more concerned about keeping the monarchy interesting and popular with the British public at a time when it has faced scandals and public skepticism.

"The magic surrounding the monarch is different in our days, but it permits a better comprehension of the role of the monarch," said Bouthillier.

Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee has evoked varied responses among the British public. Many critics look at her jubilee as a time to assess the future of the monarchy.

"One effect of a very long-reigning monarchy is it is very difficult to imagine what the monarchy will be like afterwards," says Harris.

A similar situation ensued around the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The British public was skeptical of the ability of Prince Edward to reign given his playboy reputation.

"In 2012, there is the same feeling of concern; what will the monarchy look like once Queen Elizabeth passes and what sort of monarch will Prince Charles or Prince William make," says Harris.